Anorexia in the Orthodox World

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The Yeshiva University Observer — actually the official newspaper of Stern College, the women’s school — is a great snapshot into the normally closeted world of Orthodox college students. Because YU is a school that caters to the Orthodox community — but, within Orthodoxy, it’s nonspecific — YU tends to attract a broad cross-section of the population of “mainstream” Orthodoxy. It also attracts students from both extremes of the Orthodox world: the students who want to go to a regular university, but whose families won’t let them go to a non-frum school; and the people who are too observant to go to a regular university, but who still want a college education.

anorexiaAn extraordinarily courageous young woman went on record in an interview that’s both incredibly personal and scarily typical. Currently the Director of Student Programming at an Orthodox high school, she talks about her own experiences as a teenager, not eating, vomiting up what she did eat. It’s debatable whether growing up religious can help avert an eating disorder or trigger it — and, of course, both are likely. Being religious is, in theory, a way of rejecting society’s expectations and saying that the only true standard we care about is God’s standard. But what sometimes happens is that instead of caring about what the rest of the world thinks we end up caring about what the rest of the Jewish community thinks.

Fortunately, people like Ms. Stareshefsky are speaking out and changing that.

I knew a boy. There was a certain boy whom I was very much attracted to, had been attracted to since elementary school, even. He was extremely popular and had many friends….I felt singled out in some ways for his attention, because he would never visit anyone else during that time, even though they lived much closer to him- only me. However, at the same time, he had become cruel and angry because of some family issues. He lashed out at me. He continuously mocked me, teased me, told me I was completely ugly and that he would never even consider going out with me. However, I was very attracted to him and wanted the attention he lavished upon me, even if it was negative. I liked him very much and accepted his cruelty. Not only was he verbally abusive, but he was even physically abusive. He hit me in the middle of the street once, and a neighbor saw. My parents forbade me to have anything to do with that boy ever again.

During the stress of my high school years, I lost a few pounds. And I liked it. I felt ugly and unlovable, and the boy I liked had only enforced that impression of myself. I really wanted to be pretty. So I decided to adopt a diet- a diet I had created for myself, a diet that would cause me to lose weight so that I would become pretty- not beautiful, not gorgeous, only pretty.

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(Also worth noting in this week’s edition: A poll that asks, Are you shomer negiah? For the uninitiated, that means, do you touch [or more] people of the opposite sex? The results right now: 39% yes, 26% no, and 21% “Yes, but I make certain exceptions for cousins/friends/other.” My favorite option? “I wasn’t initially, but I became shomer after my year in Israel,” currently at 5%.)

Posted on November 25, 2008

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